Mahalla updates

Keep clicking on that refresh button at Hossam's for updates on Mahalla, where tensions are extremely high as we might head into a third day of riots. In the meantime, a repeat of the general strike is being called for May 4, the date of Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday. I'm heading there this afternoon. In the meantime here is an account from activist Jano Charbel on yesterday's riots:

Intifada in Al Mahalla

A popular uprising has been taking place in Al Mahalla Al Kobra since April 6. Local residents, in the tens of thousands, took to the streets of this Nile Delta city in protest against price hikes, and in protest against the detention of more than 300 locals. With stone-throwing youth and Central Security Forces engaged in running street battles Al Mahalla has come to resemble the occupied Palestinian territories; and the protests in this city have come to resemble an intifada. Over 100 civilians and members of the security forces have been injured in clashes, and at least one civilian (a 15 year old boy) has been killed.



Hundreds of CSF trucks have been deployed around the city and hundreds more within it. Upon approaching the outskirts of Al Mahalla on the night of April 7 one could clearly notice that the security forces were facing stiff resistance on the streets – because tens of these CSF trucks, which were stationed around the city, had their windshields smashed-in (despite the protective metal grids covering them.) Tear gas stings the eyes and irritates the respiratory system upon entering the city itself.

In the neighbourhood of Sekket Tanta black clad riot police were firing tear gas canisters at just about anybody on the streets – including women, children, and the elderly; other troops opened fire on protestors using shotgun shells filled with rubber-coated pellets. Yet CSF troops could not disperse the youth protestors on the streets of this neighborhood. Male teenagers, along with (a significant number of unemployed) youths in their early twenties were at the forefront of these clashes with the CSF. Youth rained stones down upon the security forces and hurled Molotov cocktails at them. Clashes in this neighborhood had subsided only after 11pm.

These youths chanted very expressive slogans against Hosni Mubarak, the government, and the interior ministry. Other protestors had destroyed photos and portraits of the Egyptian president that were found on the streets.

Every single resident of Al Mahalla, with whom I spoke, confirmed that the non-violent demonstrations against price increases on April 6 had turned violent only after security forces moved to forcefully disperse demonstrators. Thus a peaceful demonstration quickly turned into a violent expression of popular discontent. Public properties and private enterprises have been the targets of attacks – a microbus was set ablaze, while three schools were torched, and two branches of the local ful & falafel franchise Al-Baghl were partially destroyed. It could've been local youth protestors who were behind these acts, or it could very well be the doing of destructive elements deployed by the interior ministry - in order to serve as a pretext for further crackdowns, and/or to tarnish the image of the protestors.

One youth protestor said "I don't know who set fire to the three schools, or why they did so? But I think I understand the motives behind the burning of the microbus and the attack on the Al-Baghl Restaurants. The microbus was a state-owned vehicle, and thus a natural target for attack. As for Al-Baghl, I believe the restaurants were attacked due to popular discontent with rising food prices – only five years ago a ful or falafel sandwich at Al-Baghl cost 35 piasters, it now costs 65 piasters per sandwich."

Another youth protestor on the street asked a member of the riot police "when's the last time you had a bite to eat? The officers aren't feeding you poor folks are they?" Looking exhausted and being unable to leave his spot, he quietly replied "we haven't had anything to eat in nearly 24 hours.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.